Report Reveals Ferguson Police Chase Revenue, Not Criminals
Since the shooting death of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri last year, the Ferguson Police Department has remained in the spotlight of national news outlets and civil rights organizations. Minority communities—and particularly African-American communities—across the nation have experienced tense relationships with their local police departments for decades, but now evidence is coming to light that suggests an underlying reason for the tensions. Last week, the Department of Justice (DOJ) Civil Rights Division released the results of its investigation of the Ferguson Police Department which support the community’s longstanding belief that African-Americans in Ferguson were unfairly targeted for traffic stops, searches, citations, and arrests. More troubling to the DOJ is that police activity is not motivated by promoting public safety, but rather by a need to fill the city’s coffers.
Tensions continue to run high in Ferguson as police search for the gunman who shot two officers earlier this week.
According to the report, “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than public safety needs… [which] has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department.” Internal communications showed that city officials leaned heavily on the department to ramp up ticket writing and officer promotions were found to “depend to an inordinate degree on…the number of citations issued.” Moreover, even though African-Americans make up only 67 percent of Ferguson’s population, they accounted for 85 percent of vehicle stops, 90 percent of citations, and 93 percent of arrests made by the department between 2012 and 2014.
A quick glance at other statistics in the report show that African-Americans are disproportionately targeted to generate revenue for the city:
- African-Americans are twice as likely to be searched during a traffic stop, but are 26% less likely to be in possession of contraband compared to white drivers
- African-Americans are more likely to receive a citation, more likely to receive multiple violations, and more likely to be arrested after a traffic stop.
- African-Americans made up for all of police canine bite incidents where racial information was available
- African-Americans received 95% of all Manner of Walking in Roadway charges from 2011 to 2013
- African-Americans received 94% of all Failure to Comply charges from 2011 to 2013
- African-Americans are 68% less likely to have their cases dismissed by the court
Ferguson’s tactics may just be an extreme example of standard operating procedure. In a nationwide research project conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) in 2008, it was found that nationally, white drivers and black drivers were pulled over at similar rates, accounting for 17.5 million and 18.4 million stops respectively. However, according to the Census Bureau’s 2010 statistics, whites made up 72.4 percent of the population while African-Americans only accounted for 12.6 percent. If whites and blacks were stopped by police at a “similar rate” and only one in every five Americans is black, it would logically follow that whites would be five times more likely to be pulled over by the police. The BJS research also revealed that black drivers were three times more likely than white drivers to be searched during a traffic stop. Of those surveyed, it was found that only 74 percent of black drivers felt they had been stopped for a legitimate reason compared to 86 percent of white drivers.
According to NAACP’s criminal justice fact sheet, African-Americans are also disproportionately incarcerated in America. Though they represent less than 15 percent of the nation’s population, African-Americans make up 43 percent of America’s prison population and African-American youth make up 58% of youth admitted to state prisons.
Government interest in generating revenue through citations does not appear to be unique to Ferguson, either. Over the last twenty years, the cost of a citation in California has increased by two to eight times, depending on the violation. The increases did not, however, come from increases in the base fines, which have remained mostly unchanged. Instead, the California legislature has implemented add-ons called “penalty assessments,” which help to fund various local and state projects that the state does not provide tax revenue for. For example, failing to make a complete stop before turning right at a red light cost about $100 in 1993. Though the base fine has not increased, the infraction can now run drivers more than $500 with the statutorily-mandated penalty assessments. The revenue adds up quickly with California municipalities issuing around five million citations annually, but there is no indication that roadways are any safer as a result.
The events that have unfolded in Ferguson, along with the heightened attention on police activity across the nation, have created a unique opportunity to reconsider the relationships between police departments and the communities they serve. The DOJ’s report offers a number of suggestions to promote community involvement, provide higher-quality training, increase accountability, eliminate discriminatory practices, and shift efforts from generating revenue to protecting community interests. These suggestions, if embraced by municipal governments across the nation, could serve to shift the focus of police work back to the long-standing motto of the profession — To Protect and Serve.
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